I'm not sure about anyone else, but I still remember being awestruck by the water effects in the original BioShock back in 2007.
Prior to BioShock, the water effects in First-Person Shooters was always kind of, well, average. Lakes, rivers, waterfalls had all been represented in games with vary degrees of success, but they never really looked integrated. It was hard to convince yourself that the pale blue, non-reflective, utterly immobile ocean you were standing next to had taken the developers more than a few minutes to assign to the "too hard" basket, along with presumably their desire to ever really write a story around it. Yeah, Far Cry and HalfLife 2 had some pretty good water effects when BioShock hit the market as well, but it always seemed that BioShock used water as an actual conduit for the story.
Rapture, too, was more than just a city. Rapture was BioShock. This crumbling world under the waves was undoubtably a vehicle for the plot, however it also shaped and twisted the fortunes of the protagonist, forcing him to make moral decisions based on often erroneous information in an alien environment. This dystopian homage to Ayn Rand creaked with atmosphere, dripped with leaks and perfectly encapsulated the futility and insanity of the creator, Andrew Ryan.
Based on Metacritic ratings and sales figures, BioShock is one of the most popular games ever made, although it's not hard to find divided opinion on the subject. It did have problems - the Vita Chambers afforded the player too much of an advantage, as respawning with health against creatures that hadn't regenerated any themselves turned battles into wars of attrition. The moral implications of either harvesting or killing Little Sisters were largely irrelevant. There was no multiplayer, and the DRM was botched at launch - all of which did little however to stem widespread critical praise.
It's now 2010, and if we can't have flying cars, we can at least have a BioShock sequel. After all, it's not as if there was very much doubt surrounding continued development of the franchise. But it is hard to see just exactly how you can capture the same level of intensity when you've lost the uniqueness of your first product launch; we know what to expect with Rapture. We know about Splicers, and Plasmids, hacking towers and harvesting Adam. And if a wall of water comes at us, we're more likely to move out of the way, rather than stand there admiring the soft reflections and mentally thanking Epic Games for their fantastic Unreal Engine.
We're here in Sydney to discover if this sequel can live up to expectations, as 2K Australia and 2K Marin have prepared a special presentation on BioShock 2 which features extensive gameplay footage and instructional guidance from Kent Hudson (Senior Systems Designer, 2K Marin), Alex Vancomerbeck (Level Designer, 2K Australia) and Karl Unterholzner (Global Event Manager 2K Games). If we can tear ourselves away from the demo, we might even bring you an interview or two shortly. But before all that, let's take a look at what promises to be one of the most closely followed titles of 2010.
Our demo begins with the area known as Siren Alley. As we glance around the dim interior of Rapture, Kent explains the changes that have occurred in the decade or so since the setting of the previous game. Where Andrew Ryan ruled over a largely insane population that had completely disintegrated into hordes of rabid, mutated freaks, Sophia Lamb is intent on rebuilding rapture as a world where no one man is any better than the other. Sophia is a clinical psychologist who has used Ryan's absence to garner the popular vote of the citizens, and her particular use of collectivism has allowed her to influence Rapture on a political level. In other words, the mutants are revolting.
This, coupled with additional enemies in the form of modified Big Daddys that come equipped with a rocket attack, the new "Brute" splicer class and the utterly eerie Big Sisters, has totally redesigned the entire way you approach combat. As you are now playing the role of the very first Big Daddy, your weapons cache has been significantly upgraded. Not only can you now modify each weapon three times, you can dual-wield plasmids and weapons, and use each at the same time. I personally never really felt that Plasmids were all that crucial to progress in the first BioShock, this time around you'll need to have a good understanding of how each works given a particular combat situation.
As with the first, you're on the hunt for Adam, the elusive substance used to add an element of RPG to the world by permitting enhancements to your character. Unlike the first however, you'll need to strategically choose the best time to extract Adam from the corpses dotted about the place. Upon placing a befriended Little Sister at the source of Adam, you'll be faced with waves of Splicers attempting to kill her as she works the syringe. Fortunately however, you have a few new tricks to teach them, largely in the form of traps and, security cameras/bots that can be hacked at range, even during combat. The latter is particularly important - as Kent explains, the original method of using the "Pipemania" hacking system bought the character out of the action and disassociated them with the immediate story, so it was ditched in favour of a more free-flowing experience.
Proximity traps have also been completely redesigned. You can use your Rivet Gun to attach explosives to just about any surface you like, which you'll get used to doing very quickly if you're planning on successfully harvesting a lot of Adam. You can also set up Hurricane traps and enhance them with additional damage attributes such as ice and lightning. Watching a Thuggish Splicer race through a door, stand on a trap, shoot five metres in the air and explode just doesn't get old. And even if it did, the rocket-assisted Speargun would provide more than enough entertainment - fire it at a splicer and watch them fly around the room shrieking before immolation occurs, then calmly retrieve your spear from the corpse for use on the next freak. It's good to recycle.
There's no doubt that the enemy AI has been significantly upgraded for BioShock 2. Even the movement of Splicers looks more purposeful - they use the environment to greater effect as they run, jump and generally scuttle about in the dark. The one Big Sister we encountered proved to be a formidable foe - with stacks of hit points and the unnerving ability to follow you as you desperately cycle through your weapons and plasmids attempting to find the best combination, she was finally despatched when we used Enrage to encourage a passing Brute Splicer to attack her, but not before she let out some truly frightening screams. Sound effects were crucial in setting the pace of the original, and they're every bit as good this time around.
I'm not going to ruin the plot, but fans of good game writing will be in for a treat. The narrative is driven very much like the first, with audio diaries dotted about, and the occasional clues provided by the artwork and environmental objects. Speaking of which, although the single-player doesn't recycle locations from the original game (and we weren't able to see the multiplayer), the new environments are breathtaking, with the same attention to detail and commitment to the integrity of Rapture that we loved from the first game. We were advised that the PC version will contain additional enhancements - notably, support for Nvidia's Stereoscopic 3D - however the Xbox 360 used at the demo played smoothly and was more than capable of cranking out some incredible scenery.
My initial concerns about the validity of recreating a sunken world that was so revolutionary the first time around have been completely removed. BioShock 2 isn't just a copy of the original with a few extra guns, it's a complete, ground-up rework with the goal of providing a totally fresh experience in a world that was just too good to remain a one-off title. Fans of the original will love it, and newcomers to the franchise will be enthralled with what 2K have created. February can't come soon enough.
Our thanks to 2K Australia, 2K Marin and 2K's PR manager Snezana Stojanovska for making this preview possible.